Confident (not arrogant) Kentucky takes aim at title run

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 14, 2012 

  • Thursday

    Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    What: NCAA Tournament South Regional second-round game

    When: 6:50 p.m.

    Where: KFC Yum Center in Louisville

    TV: TBS

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630; WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: Kentucky 32-2, Western Kentucky 16-18

    Series: Kentucky leads 3-2

    Last meeting: Western Kentucky won 64-52 on Nov. 15, 2001, in Rupp Arena

LOUISVILLE — In 1995-96, Kentucky lost only once in the regular season. After a surprise upset in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals, the Cats rolled to a national championship.

"I heard of that," Doron Lamb said Wednesday. "I hope that happens to us."

To aid that back-to-the-future scenario, Kentucky held a team meeting Tuesday night. The point of the meeting: play consistently hard, play to win (as opposed to playing to avoid losing), have fun.

Of the aim of UK coaches calling the meeting, Terrence Jones said, "They didn't want a lot of pressure building up or players feeling the need to have to win."

The expectations associated with being the NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed and then accentuated by the Cat-mosphere of Kentucky basketball makes for potentially suffocating pressure. UK Coach John Calipari tried to lighten the load by speaking of simply performing well in each possession of his team's opening game Thursday night against Western Kentucky ... and whatever may come thereafter.

"Let me try to get my team playing as well as they can play," he said. "That's the pressure I'm feeling."

After Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt on Sunday in the SEC Tournament finals, Calipari and players spoke of a creeping "arrogance." Upon reflection, coach and players spoke of poor shooting — not overconfidence — as the culprit.

"At least not in the championship game," Jones said when asked about arrogance. "I think we could feel that way against LSU and Florida because of the way we started those games. We had like a 'turnaround' switch during those games. That made (the coaches) feel we thought we could turn it on and off."

Point guard Marquis Teague objected to the idea of the Cats as arrogant. "We have a lot of talent," he said, "but we're not arrogant people."

The UK players spoke of an overconfidence born of going three months and a day without tasting defeat.

"When you win so much, you think you can't lose," walk-on Sam Malone said. "...You forget about the things you have to do to win. You think you can win no matter what you do."

This would have sounded familiar to at least two players on UK's 1995-96 team. Those Cats went even longer without tasting defeat: Nov. 28 to March 10.

"It's easy to start to believe you're unbeatable," said Cameron Mills, a reserve in 1995-96. "It's easy to believe the coach doesn't know what he's talking about."

An 84-73 loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament finals grounded that Kentucky team. It also angered those Cats and infused them with newfound resolve.

"Not only were we not losing again, we wanted to show teams they don't belong on the floor with us."

Another reserve of 1995-96, Jeff Sheppard, cautioned against the thought of a long-lasting effect. No team — including the Kentucky champions of 1996 — can feed off a loss continuously.

"When we were playing Wake Forest to get to the Final Four, we were not thinking of Mississippi State," Sheppard said. "It wasn't a motivating factor where Coach (Rick) Pitino was writing 'Remember Mississippi State' on the blackboard before every game."

Sullen after Sunday's loss to Vanderbilt, the current Cats seemed more philosophical about the defeat as they met with reporters on the eve of this year's NCAA Tournament.

"It just happened," Lamb said. "We're not perfect. We can't win every game."

The Cats only want to win six more games.

The outsized goals remain.

"We want to prove to the world we're the best team in the country," Lamb said.

As Calipari suggested, to get there, Kentucky only needs to be Kentucky.

"If we play our best, we know we can win," Malone said. "If we're playing our best, it will take a really, really, really good team to beat us."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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